My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.
Travel – Edna St Vincent Millay
As a girl I was eager to see the world beyond the small town where we lived. In my daydreams during math class, I would often imagine life in Europe among the castles, cathedrals, and cobblestone streets. I clipped out magazine and newspaper pictures of all the places I wanted to go, and I created elaborate collages that decorated my lavender room.
Let’s just say I was a bit quirky—and eager to see the world.
While I was in college my parents asked me what I wanted to do for my graduation trip and I immediately responded "England!" As a teenager I fallen in love with all things British-- Earl Grey tea, Monty Python, Mr. Bean, the Beatles, and 19th century English poetry. I was a budding Anglophile and there was nothing more I wanted to see in the world than England itself.
I began planning my trip in the spring of 1999 as an early twenty-something full of idealism and wanderlust (I’ve always wanted to use that word!). I chose a program where I would have to find a job in-country for the entire summer. What I didn’t take into account was the fact I was a solid introvert who had a difficult time putting myself out there, and that finding a job might be more of a challenge than I realized.
But none-the-less, I pressed on, determined to see England, get a job, and have marvelous adventures, the sort I had dreamed about for years. I booked my ticket, made hostel reservations, and decided Cambridge was the city I wanted to plant in. As I look back now, it would have been very helpful to choose a city where I actually knew people and had a connection and a job ready to step into. Or if I had stayed in London where there were far more opportunities for a job, I might have had a different experience altogether.
But I didn't. And long story short, what should have been a summer of English adventure ended up being three weeks of solo tourism and several tearful and expensive phone calls back home to mom.
I saw Stonehenge and Bath and Big Ben, but I also saw a side to my personality I had not expected. Instead of bold and adventurous, I felt overwhelmed and timid. I hated traveling around alone. Other women seemed absolutely fine with it and embraced new friends and going out, but I mostly felt lost and completely unsure of who I was when the travel-dreaming young woman came face-to-face with the reality of being a woman alone in strange places. I hated eating alone, walking down empty streets alone, and figuring out transportation alone. And I especially didn’t at all like the feeling of vulnerability I felt walking around unknown cities.
Reluctantly I booked my ticket home six weeks early, then ran over to Bath to see a little of the country Jane Austen was mad about because who can go that far and not at least do that? Secretly I had hoped there might be a bit of magic in that sacred place… a little Austen magic waiting for me in Darcy-like form (I hadn’t even met my husband yet, so don’t freak out). Alas, there was only a slightly awkward guy who randomly decided to be my buddy for dinner and a cricket game.
Darcy was nowhere to be found on that trip. And quite honestly I felt so embarrassed to come back early and crash my parents’ anniversary that I didn’t want to see anyone for a while. But if I learned anything on that trip it was that sometimes you simply have to do things and see for yourself what it really is all about. I could have spent my summer romanticizing about travel and England, but instead I took a risk and went. And today it’s a funny story to tell with a little cringing involved for good measure.
We are all in process and the process involves learning who we are and who we aren’t. And thankfully that changes as we grow and mature. Today I feel like I could travel to most places alone and figure it out, though I still won’t like it. And having romantic ideas about Europe seems like a rite of passage for English majors and Jane Austen fans alike.
As a parent now I can see the bravery my mom had letting me go off on my own with only thin plans and no connections. It’s a lesson for me when the day comes not too many years from now to let my babes find their own way, even though there will be times it could be perceived as failure.
And of course this was not the first or last travel experience that taught me something about life, people, or myself. It seems that some of the best lessons I’ve learned have been on foreign soil. So embrace the journey, wherever it takes you… there’s always something wonderful to see or learn when we are brave enough to step out our front door. Cheers!